Euphemisms and Ethics: A Language-Centered Analysis of Penn State’s Sexual Abuse Scandal
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For 15 years, former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky used his Penn State University perquisites to lure young and fatherless boys by offering them special access to one of the most revered football programs in the country. He repeatedly used the football locker room as a space to groom, molest, and rape his victims. In February 2001, an eye-witness alerted Penn State’s top leaders that Sandusky was caught sexually assaulting a young boy in the showers. Instead of taking swift action against Sandusky, leaders began a cover-up that is considered one of the worst scandals in sports history. While public outcry has focused on the leaders’ silence, we focus on the talk that occurred within the organization by key personnel. Drawing from court documents and internal investigative reports, we examine two euphemism clusters that unfolded in the scandal. The first cluster comprises reporting euphemisms, in which personnel used coded language to report the assault up the chain of command. The second cluster comprises responding euphemisms, in which Penn State’s top leaders relied on an innocuous, but patently false, interpretation of earlier euphemisms as a decision-making framework to chart their course of (in)action. We use this case to demonstrate how euphemistic language impairs ethical decision-making, particularly by framing meaning and visibility of acts, encouraging mindless processing of moral considerations, and providing a shield against psychological and material consequences. Further, we argue that euphemism may serve as a disguised retort to critical upward communication in organizations.
KeywordsCritical upward communication Decision-making Ethics Euphemism Language Leadership
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